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7.28.11: Sounds of the Needle

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

Today is busy at the Needle. All three elevators are working to bring guests up to see the view. Unlike much of this summer, the weather is clear and sunny. In the distance, Mt. Rainier is floating above a mountain haze like a cream puff defying gravity.

We focus a lot on the sights from the Needle, and its tastes, but it has a long history of sound. This comes to mind today because the Observation Deck is buzzing with visitors creating a background noise akin to a busy airport terminal. But there's more to it than a human buzz.

During the World's Fair, the Needle had loudspeakers on it at the 200- foot level that broadcast the music of 538 carillon bells across the fairgrounds. The Schulmerich carillon was located at the base of the Needle where a "carillonneur" played at a console that looked like an organ. The electronically amplified bell tones could be heard 10 miles away. Some people called the Space Needle "the world's highest musical instrument."

Outside the Needle today, the KOMO helicopter across the street makes noise as it prepares to take off. There were helicopters coming and going at the fair too, taking off from and landing on the roof of the old Armory, now called Center House. The fair also boasted a marching band. Add to the mix foreign music blasted from exhibitors.

The combination could create a cacophony. The Post-Intelligencer's inveterate fair columnist, Jack Jarvis, complained early in the fair that "One of the bugs the Fair folks haven't taken care of yet is the lack of coordination of activities involving the various sounds you hear on the fairgrounds." Between the band, the choppers and the Needle's carillon, dignitaries often had their speeches interrupted, which became an issue when one of those speechifiers who had trouble being heard was the Vice President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Needle also inspired song. Local artists during the fair and after produced Needle music and records. Perhaps the turn-table restaurant was a cue. Rock station KAYO issued an album of Needle- inspired "twist" numbers. There was also an album of Needle carillon music, called "Bells on Hi-fi." And a duo that played accordion and piano, Muriel and Andy, had an album of Space Needle dinner music in the mid-60s called "Music to Remember the Space Needle By."

The view is nice, but there's an experience of sound here too that's part of the life and history of the Needle too.


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